Arriving late, breathless, with a heightened heart rate and sweat already dripping from your face is probably not such a bad thing when you’re going to a new exercise class. But my hands and legs failed to catch up to the mostly synchronous movements of the rest of the ladies in the airy room, a fact slightly embarrassing to admit when you consider that I was probably the youngest one there — the oldest woman was almost half a century my senior.
After 40 minutes of kickboxing into the air, without any music except for the rhythmic counting of our instructress and the occasional whoop exploding unbidden from a pumped member of the class, we stopped exercising, but the experience of attending a local exercise class for the first time was far from over. Even though I had lived in a little suburb of Johannesburg all my life, I had never before participated in any activities involving ladies from my community, having been buried under billable hours and corporate law for much of the previous four years. Taking a break from legal practice, I jumped headlong into new experiences, trying to make up for lost time.
As ladies wiped glowing faces, a few walked over and introduced themselves. A 60-year-old auntie asked me the usual auntie questions: How old are you, are you married? How many children, where do you live? Something only an “auntie” would do immediately upon meeting a total stranger. Ah, Indian culture is both nosy and sweetly quirky. Anyone older than you is always an auntie, even if you’ve never met before.
Apart from the barrage of questions, I noticed almost every lady putting on a long black abaya over her colorful gym clothes, hijabs being wrapped expertly in a flash. And more than half the class also wore the full face covering, the niqab (also referred to as a purdah), our instructress among them. Knowing the sheer strength of these ladies’ kicks and punches, I felt like I had entered some sort of ladies-only dojo, and I wondered whether the studio was a place reserved for more serious, conservative women. But the conversation soon turned to how sore our arms would be the next day (and how that would affect our ability to roll rotis), and I relaxed.
The class met four times a week: kickboxing, pilates, step, and yoga ball, with optional aqua-aerobic classes in the summer. For the next year, I witnessed the camaraderie of a diverse group of ladies, ranging in age from early 20s to late 60s, brought together by our need for a private space in which to exercise and socialize freely.
When I first joined the class, I had barely started wearing the hijab, and I listened in amusement as one of the ladies jokingly (or not so jokingly) complimented another woman’s beauty, saying, “You’re so pretty, you should wear purdah.” The joker is actually a proper Islamic scholar, something I wouldn’t have guessed until she graciously offered to teach me Arabic — for free — when I expressed a vague interest.
At the time, I recall being surprised that this bunch of rowdy kickboxers were such conservative dressers. But I guess it goes to show that even within the Muslim community, we sometimes have incorrect stereotypes about each other, faulty ideas that a Pilates class can help to shatter. I always thought niqab wearers were more reserved, but when the cloaks came off and the workout began, I saw another side to these women who had always seemed guarded. It was likely my own preconceived notions at play and nothing that these ladies had actually ever done that shaped my first impressions.